Facebook, Microsoft Helping U.K. Government Select And Train A New Generation Of Computer Science Teachers

Computer science teaching in U.K. schools has been broken for years, having a soft focus on ICT teaching — i.e. showing kids how to use computer software — rather than teaching them how to use computers to create software. Earlier this year a U.K. government Minister described IT lessons as ‘catastrophically boring’. Those remarks followed some choice words from Google’s Eric Schmidt last year when he warned the nation was throwing away its computing heritage by focusing on arts teaching at the expense of computer science.

Since then, the government has been knocking heads together to try to get a handle on the problem — last year it announced plans to develop new “IT-centric” qualifications, to teach schoolkids core principles of computer programming, and in January the Education Secretary reiterated their intention to scrap the derided ICT curriculum and replace it with a new computer science curriculum. It’s currently carrying out a curriculum review to come up with a new program of study for the subject — with an all-new computer science curriculum due to land in September 2014.

Today the government has revealed another plank in the strategy — announcing measures to attract a new generation of computer science teachers that have the skills to teach bona fide computing, rather than run lessons in how to use Microsoft Word. Slightly ironic, then, that it’s getting help from Microsoft to overhaul IT teaching. Professor Chris Bishop, Distinguished Scientist at Microsoft Research, did not note this irony in his supporting statement on the announcement

Microsoft is passionate about improving the way that we teach technology in schools, but also how we use technology to teach. As founding members of the Computing at School working group, we’ve been working to inspire both teachers and young people about the importance of computer science for a number of years.

Scholarships such as those announced today will be vital in ensuring that the UK maintains a healthy pipeline of computer science talent, which can only be a positive thing for this country’s future prosperity.

As well as working with Microsoft, the government is getting help from Facebook, IBM, BT and other companies for the new Computer Science Initial Teacher Training course — which replaces the current Information and Communications Technology courses (which have now lost their government funding). Facebook, Microsoft et al have also been involved in helping draw up a document that sets out minimum requirements for subject knowledge for budding computer science teachers applying to the new training course.

Around 50 scholarships worth £20,000 each will be available in the first year with the aim of attracting top graduates into IT teaching. The scholarships will be open to applications from any graduate with a 2.1 or first class degree — again, somewhat ironic, being as the humanities graduates so derided by Schmidt will apparently be able to apply to becoming computer science teachers. However applications will also have to demonstrate they have an understanding of a variety of key computer science concepts and processes in order to be accepted on the training — such as algorithms and computational models.

A spokesman for the Department for Education told me the reason the government is not stipulating that applicants to the teaching course have a computing degree is to ensure suitable candidates who hold other degrees, such as in mathematics, aren’t excluded.

Facebook and co are also likely to be involved in the selection process of teachers for the scholarship — helping to interview potential candidates, said the spokesman.  Facebook’s Simon Milner, Director of Public Policy for UK & Ireland, noted in a statement: “It is a positive step to help get high quality computer science teachers in schools, and therefore ensure more young people gain the right skills to join and lead our digital industries.”

Existing ICT teachers are also being targeted for upskilling by another government initiative announced today which will see 500 existing ICT teachers provided with computer science training in the first year of the program. This scheme is being part funded through a £150,000 government grant.

[Image: LSE Library]